As someone from San Diego, most of my travel experiences prior to arriving at Berkeley have been by car. Where I’m from, you can drive about 15 minutes and be in a completely different part of town: from the city to the beach and perhaps even the mountains. When I arrived at Cal, the topography of the Bay was quite a new adjustment. Berkeley’s towns and suburbs are nestled between the barriers of the hills and the bay, which are much more densely populated than what I was used to. I quickly learned that things were a bit different here. A 15-minute ride might still land you, inevitably somewhere else in Berkeley depending on where you are. Not only was urban sprawl a new phenomenon to me, but I also didn’t have a car to navigate it.
When I arrived in Berkeley, I was new to the trials of urban transportation. The last time I had taken the bus was when I was in high school. I had gotten in a fender bender en route to a first date while running late in rush hour traffic. It was an unfortunate hit to both my ‘98 4-Runner and my ego since it had only been roughly six months since I had first gotten my driver’s license. The date was easily postponed, but for the next couple of days, I took the bus home from school until the issue was resolved. At home, the bus was a straight shot from Adams Avenue, down Park Avenue as it progressed to Old Town. However, you just can’t compare public transportation in San Diego to Berkeley. While public transportation is fairly straightforward around campus, if you even miss one stop on the F bus, you may find yourself venturing to Emeryville, Oakland or even San Francisco.
While in Berkeley, it has taken quite a lot of trial and error for me to find the perfect public transit app, get to the BART on time or even determine whether I should just walk. After a couple of weeks, I finally had some practice under my belt. With travel rearing back up after the pandemic I decided it was time to embark on a new journey. I was going to take the train to visit a friend across the bay in Santa Clara, a whole 47.7 miles away.
While public transportation is fairly straightforward around campus, if you even miss one stop on the F bus, you may find yourself venturing to Emeryville, Oakland or even San Francisco.
My first attempt at catching the Amtrak was a failed effort. I did not time things out correctly and regrettably, I watched the train pull out of the station with utter despair from my vantage point of the 51B, just near the 4th Street shops. I probably missed it by about two minutes and 300 yards. I was right there, but not close enough and my ego was completely shattered again. So, the next week I woke up early on Saturday morning, put on my game face and drank a cup of coffee, determined to be ready.
As I ventured out into the chilly autumn streets of Berkeley just past 7 a.m., I observed the world just after the break of dawn. A sort of dreaminess waded through the air as I walked past the early risers at Cafe Strada. The lively breeze funneled through the evergreen trees and encouraged me on my way to the 51B bus stop. The bus only took a couple of minutes to arrive before it drove me down Bancroft Way, continued right on Shattuck Avenue and veered left on University Avenue for the final few miles before reaching the final stop just before the Berkeley Marina.
The gentleness of the morning came to a sudden halt, while I waited for the train to arrive below the noisy underpass. The soft daylight brought a sense of security, but I was all too aware that I was alone in the large urban setting. The monotone voice of the electronic ticket master rang aloud announcing the train was approaching, though it wasn’t mine, and I realized that I was standing about five feet away from the tracks. My senses were overwhelmed by the roar of the whistle and movement picked up all around me. The train whisked towards me and I suddenly felt very small. About 10 minutes later, I boarded the 724 Capitol Corridor.
I was surprised to see that I was one of a few people on the train. And since it was my first time traveling alone in the greater Bay Area, I looked for a seat that felt safe and secure. A spot where I felt aware. A spot with a good vantage point to “people watch.” Much to my dismay, there wasn’t much action going on so early in the morning. Only a couple sat across from me as the other passengers moved ahead to the front car. However, my seat was also located near the window which means I could look out to the bay to pass the time.
The monotone voice of the electronic ticket master rang aloud announcing the train was approaching, though it wasn’t mine, and I realized that I was standing about five feet away from the tracks.
After we passed obliquely through to Oakland, Union City, Hayward and Fremont we entered into a marshland. Its pools of water rippled in response to the motion of tracks. I looked out the window as we passed by and I saw the sparrows, sandpipers and snowy egrets begin to fly away. I was too distracted by the movement outside to focus on the books I brought to read along the way. The trip allowed me time for reflection. It had been a long time since I’d let my thoughts speak for themself.
Amid the pandemic world, taking the train offers a sense of security without much hassle or expense. The train’s gestures are simple ones: Conductors are friendly, tech is easy to use and pandemic protocol is straightforward. Plus, there are plenty to choose from: from Amtrak to the Caltrain, and every other local option as well. I made it to Santa Clara safely and on time. Although my ride was a short one, it left me eager to plan my next trip — perhaps on the Coast Starlight, which runs along the coast of California and even to the Pacific Northwest. These journeys remind me that the public transportation system is here for a reason: By making travel affordable and accessible, it closes the gap between the burdensome prices and the long distances that too often render people isolated. While public transit may take some time to master, for someone like me who doesn’t have a car, it opens up our world to numerous possibilities.